Ring of steel welcome for Bush25/06/2004 - 18:04:11
A quiet corner of rural Ireland was encased in a steel cage tonight as military helicopters patrolled the skies above thousands of troops.
The normally tranquil Dromoland Castle in Co Clare became a fort as US President George W Bush touched down at the nearby Shannon Airport.
Anti-war protesters who gathered outside lines of more than 2,000 troops and heavy armour.
All routes to Shannon Airport and the luxurious castle grounds were sealed off and police officers paced roadsides keeping a watchful eye that no-one strayed into unapproved areas, while camouflaged army vehicles waited in the bushes.
Local people simply gazed on in amazement as the largest security operation in the history of the State swung into action and transformed their peaceful neighbourhoods into something not unlike a war film set.
The surreal atmosphere was compounded by the location of chemical toilets like those used at music festivals at road junctions to accommodate the needs of hundreds of troops and garda officers patrolling the remote countryside.
Previous American presidents had received a warm welcome to Ireland but Mr Bush was kept well away from the people of Shannon, the majority of whom were firmly against his visit.
Conor Creegan, of Shannon town, said: “The locals are disgusted, our life has been disrupted for several weeks now.”
Fiona Wheeler, another local who had been issued with a special security pass to allow her access to her home, said she was disgusted by the “over-the-top” security arrangements.
“In my recollection the last place people had to carry passes was under Apartheid in South Africa,” she said.
“There are gardaí behind every bollard and every pillar.
“This huge expense is sinful, Shannon does not have an ambulance service but millions of euro are being spent to protect just this one man.”
Naval ships patrolled the Shannon River and estuary, while specialist decontamination units and bomb disposal teams were on standby to deal with a possible chemical or biological attack.
But the only visible threat to the quiet countryside were noisy protesters who had set up a colourful peace camp outside the security cordon.
The demonstrators, who had travelled from all over Ireland, were undeterred by their lack of sleep the previous night due to supportive motorists blowing their horns as they passed.
Lisa McKee, a protester who had travelled more than 200 miles from Belfast, said there was a relaxed atmosphere in the camp, despite the nearby presence of water canons and riot police.
“We don’t anticipate any violence but I think they will use water cannons,” she said as the sun blazed down.
Roads across Clare, which is known as the banner county, were bedecked with banners declaring opposition to President Bush’s visit.
Liz Curry of the Dublin Grassroots Network said it was clear everyone in the area was opposed to Mr Bush’s arrival.
“We are also trying to highlight the continuous use of Shannon Airport by US troops,” she said.
Local ethnic food shops, health stores and supermarkets donated food to the protesters to ensure they were prepared for their march to police lines in the general vicinity of the airport.
Caoimhe Butterly, who spent eight months in Iraq last year, said it was ironic that President Bush’s meeting with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern tomorrow was taking place on the international day to commemorate the victims of torture.
“I think Bush should be indicted rather than invited,” she said.
Peace campaigner and former Army commandant Ed Horgan was one of three protesters arrested while on a boat in the Shannon estuary this afternoon.
But campaigners insisted the blow would not deter them.
As they prepared for their hike to the nearby airport, gardaí raided the camp and burst hundreds of balloons they had intended to release into the air with messages attached.
“We will not be deflated,” said one defiant protester.
And with that they were off to meet the most powerful man in the world with an untraditional Irish welcome.
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